In the Doghouse

Bartender-Free Bars: Less Staffing Is Less Safe

pour-it-yourself taps from a bar in San FranciscoA new trend has appeared in the alcohol service market: pour-it-yourself bars. These bars allow patrons to purchase a swipe card that entitles them to pour their own beers. The strange science-fiction setup, with screens above every tap displaying what's available and how much the customer is spending, hides the fact that this style of serving brings back a very basic problem in alcohol service: how to make sure that each patron is of legal drinking age, and that they are not over-consuming. By eliminating face-to-face contact with bartenders, pour-it-yourself venues not only reduce jobs, they eliminate the people best able to make for a safer bar.

In fact, California is in the middle of rolling out a mandatory responsible beverage service (RBS) training program for all alcohol servers. This program will provide staff with many of the skills necessary to promote safer consumption, including how to spot a fake ID, how to tell if a patron has drunk too much, and how to safely discourage intoxicated customers from driving. RBS is an evidence-based means to reduce alcohol harm; it stands to reason, then, that eliminating RBS-trained staff is an evidence-based ways to increase it.

That overlooks the more basic flaws in the system. Although the swipe-card makes customers interact with at least one staff member, it does not take a lot of planning to figure out how to defraud the system. Underage patrons can use a single buyer's cup, cut-off patrons can simply borrow a different swipe card, and there is no one to call a cab for a customer who is too deep in the swipes.

"These bars are dangerous, no question," said Michael Scippa, Public Affairs Director at Alcohol Justice. "They run the risk of getting a customer hurt or getting extra drunk drivers behind the wheel. And for what? To cut some jobs and make some dough? Why that's almost as dumb as extending bar hours to 3 or 4 a.m."

As notes, pour-it-yourself systems are part of a restaurant trend towards "fast casual," where the business owner reduces overhead by eliminating as many staff positions as possible. Yet time and time again public health and safety advocates hear arguments that more liquor licenses are necessary to create jobs and help hospitality businesses stay in the black. If this quasi-futuristic concept means fewer jobs and more alcohol harm, is it a future any of us really needs?

READ MORE about the brave new world of booze.